Arizona’s efforts to deal with the effects of drought on the Colorado River hit a rough patch Wednesday, after the Central Arizona Project shared updated and previously undisclosed data indicating that possible water cuts would be more extensive and severe than expected.
Farmers and ranchers remain first in line to lose water, but tribal communities and cities, which were slated previously to lose some water from the Non-Indian Agriculture, or NIA, pool, would now likely lose much more under Arizona’s Drought Contingency Plan.
Based on the new numbers, “a Drought Contingency Plan would cut about half of the NIA pool,” said Cynthia Campbell, water resource manager adviser for the city of Phoenix, who is an alternate on the steering committee and was present at Wednesday’s meeting. “Not a small sliver. A big chunk.”
As water levels at Lake Mead continue to decline, the federal Bureau of Reclamation gives it a 52 percent chance of slipping below 1,075 feet — that is, hit an official shortage — by 2020. Arizona is part of a multistate effort to negotiate water cuts that would prevent reservoir levels from falling further.
Within Arizona, these contentious Drought Contingency Plan talks have centered around figuring out ways to lessen the impacts of water cuts, especially on agriculture. These negotiations, in turn, are based on a list of water orders provided by the Central Arizona Project that shows how much water CAP’s customers plan to buy.
Those water orders matter because the amount of water that’s distributed to agriculture depends on how much water other users, who get priority, consume first. The more water they use, the less remains for agriculture and the NIA pool, which is next in line. But the order numbers weren’t all there until this week…
By using numbers from previous years, when customers ordered less water, CAP had been understating the impact of drought cuts on the NIA category, from which many cities, including Phoenix, draw water, Campbell added.
It all became clear at a working group meeting Wednesday, when CAP revealed the new numbers.
Broken down by year, the numbers showed that water orders for 2019, which were finalized just last week, are slated to rise in the coming year. CAP also shared the figures for water orders in 2016, 2017, and 2018, previously undisclosed, showing that these orders steadily have ticked upward in recent years. Those numbers, shown below in photocopies, were presented during the closed working group meeting. They were also shown on screens during the steering group meeting, which is open to the public, but they were not made available online with other materials from the open meeting.
In 2016, users in two priority categories, Indian and Municipal/Industrial, ordered a total of 807,000 acre-feet of water from CAP; in 2017, 882,000 acre-feet, and in 2018, 907,000 acre-feet…
Draft numbers for next year sit at 933,000 acre-feet for users in the two categories. If orders for water remained around 2017 and 2018 levels, water cuts under the Drought Contingency Plan would take out just a splash of the NIA pool. Using the projected 2019 numbers, they would gobble up more than half of the pool — and the overall trend is that usage is rising…
So the Drought Contingency Plan is supposed to bridge the gap between the 2007 guidelines and the year 2026, the year those guidelines end. But negotiations over the rights to water from the Colorado River are beyond contentious, and they are excruciatingly complex…
Imagine a pitcher of water and five cups. Which cups are filled first and how much water each one receives is dictated by a pecking order, defined by an amalgam of laws, rules, negotiations, and lawsuits.
Now imagine that the source of the water starts to dry up, and you’re not going to have as much water as you expected. The cups that are first in line are ordering more water than ever, as is their legal right. What do you do? Do you try to make sure all five glasses still get some water? Or do you let the last cups in line run dry? If the people drinking from the first-filled cups don’t drink everything, should you pour that excess into a separate pitcher and redistribute it among the glasses that are last in line? What about using excess water you stored away over the course of years?
That is the simplified version of what the Drought Contingency Plan is trying to figure out. The pitcher of water is the Colorado River, and the five glasses are groups that include, in order of priority, tribal communities and municipalities/industries, non-Indian agriculture, and agriculture, which gets whatever is left over after the others have quenched their thirst.
The newly revealed numbers prompted fierce comments on Wednesday. Steering committee members and other stakeholders argued over the ramifications of the number and vowed to protect their access to water.
Some suggested that the new numbers showed that an agriculture mitigation pool, already a point of contention, would grant farmers more water than they would have received under the 2007 guidelines.
“I think the principle of mitigation is to mitigate, not to ameliorate,” said Don Pongrace, an attorney for the Gila River Indian Community, who spoke at but does not sit on the steering committee. He suggested that the new numbers indicated that creating a mitigation pool for agriculture under the DCP would give them more water than they would have received under the 2007 guidelines and thus undermine the entire point of the DCP.
Agricultural interests vehemently disagreed.
“That would be the end of the agricultural economy in Pinal County,” Paul Orme, representing Pinal County agriculture, declared during the meeting. “In 2019, we have for some reason, some drastic change in these water orders that has some potentially devastating impacts on the ag pool. We should drill down. … Why were those orders made in 2019, and what is those extra water going to be used for?”
It’s not clear why CAP made these detailed numbers public only on Wednesday, and an explanation from CAP about the numbers it had been using was not clear. DeEtte Person, a spokesperson for CAP, told Phoenix New Times that CAP had been providing numbers from 2018, and that it was only last week that CAP finalized orders for 2019.
“The question was raised, ‘Oh, are you now using the numbers from your most current numbers you just got last week?’” Person said. “The answer was, ‘No, we’ve been using the numbers we’ve been using all along.’ And so I think that just confused people.”
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:
Colorado River Basin States make important progress towards adopting effective Drought Contingency Plans in 2018
In December 2017, Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman called on the seven Colorado River Basin States and water entitlement holders in the Lower Colorado Basin to continue developing Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) in response to ongoing historic drought conditions in the Basin and reduce the likelihood of Colorado River reservoirs – particularly Lake Powell and Lake Mead – further declining to critical elevations. All seven Colorado River Basin States have been working diligently throughout 2018 on a set of draft DCP agreements that would implement Drought Contingency Plans in the Upper and Lower Basins. The agreements include an Upper Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan and a Lower Colorado River Basin Drought Contingency Plan.
The Upper Basin DCP is designed to: a) protect critical elevations at Lake Powell and help assure continued compliance with the 1922 Colorado River Compact, and b) authorize storage of conserved water in the Upper Basin that could help establish the foundation for a Demand Management Program that may be developed in the future.
The Lower Basin DCP is designed to: a) require Arizona, California and Nevada to contribute additional water to Lake Mead storage at predetermined elevations, and b) create additional flexibility to incentivize additional voluntary conservation of water to be stored in Lake Mead.
The Upper and Lower Basin DCPs contain actions in addition to the provisions of the December 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The Upper and Lower Basin DCPs are available for download here: Upper and Lower Basin DCPs – Final Review Draft. (PDF – 668 KB)
After years of stop-and-go talks, California and two other states that take water from the lower Colorado River are nearing an agreement on how to share delivery cuts if a formal shortage is declared on the drought-plagued waterway.
Under the proposed pact, California — the river’s largest user — would reduce diversions earlier in a shortage than it would if the lower-basin states strictly adhered to a water-rights pecking order. California’s huge river take would drop 4.5% to 8% as the shortage progressed.
With occasional years of relief, the river that greens farm fields and fills faucets from Colorado to California has been stuck in drought since 2000. A shortage declaration has been looming over the seven-state basin for more than a decade, only to be narrowly averted time and again when rain and snow in the upper basin pushed reservoir levels above the trigger point.
But flows into Lake Powell — one of the Colorado’s two massive reservoirs — fell to a little more than a third of the average for the April-through-July period this year. And September’s inflow was negligible, less than 1% of the average. Looking at those numbers, federal officials say the U.S. Interior Department could declare a shortage in 2020.
“It’s pretty clear we’re in a deepening long-term drought cycle,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which has been importing Colorado River water to the region since the early 1940s. “It’s in everybody’s interest to prevent the system from cratering.”
The basin’s entire storage system is 47% full. Lake Powell, which stores runoff from the upper basin and releases it to Lake Mead, is 45% full. Mead, the source of Southern California’s river water, is 38% full.
The Interior secretary has never declared a shortage on the Colorado. But it has been known for years that the river is over-allocated. The basin states divvied up the flows in the early 20th century — a period that in hindsight was unusually wet and presented an unrealistic picture of what the Colorado could produce year in and year out.
Diversions are regulated by a complicated system of river compacts and water rights that call for Arizona and Nevada to take the first cuts in times of a lower-basin shortage. California, with some of the oldest river rights, is further down the line.
The sprawling Imperial Irrigation District and other farm districts in southeastern California control roughly 75% of California’s 4.4 million-acre-foot share. Imperial is the single largest user on the entire length of the river, which starts at the Continental Divide in the Colorado Rockies and has an average annual flow of roughly 15 million acre-feet.
Metropolitan has nearly doubled its base allocation of 550,000 acre-feet through agreements with Imperial and other irrigation districts that fallow crop land and sell their unused river supplies. Those deals would help cushion Metropolitan, which serves Southern California, if a shortage is declared. (An acre-foot is enough to supply more than two households for a year.)
Metropolitan would also benefit from water it has been able to bank in Lake Mead under 2007 drought guidelines that have allowed states to leave unused portions of their river allocations in the reservoir. Under the previous use-it-or-lose-it rules, states had to take their full allocation every year.
The 2007 framework specified that the Department of the Interior would declare a shortage when Lake Mead’s elevation hit 1,075 feet. Nevada and Arizona, which have rights junior to California, would then start delivery reductions.
Under the proposed drought contingency plan, Arizona and Nevada would continue to take the first cuts, which would be deeper than outlined in 2007. At the same time, California would reduce its river diversions when Mead levels hit 1,045 feet — earlier in the shortage than previously envisioned.
California’s cuts, shared by Imperial and Metropolitan, would increase as the lake level dropped but be no greater than 350,000 acre-feet a year.
Arizona is still working out the details of how to apportion its cuts among in-state users. And the lower-basin water districts have yet to approve the drought plan, which parties are hoping to finalize by December.
Colorado and three other states could set aside up to 500,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Powell in coming years, enough to serve 1 million homes, under a far-reaching agreement to protect the drought-stricken Colorado River and water supplies for 40 million people in the American West.
“We are in a very dire situation in the Colorado River Basin and it could be more dire if this year’s snowpack looks like last year’s snowpack,” said James Eklund, who represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Commission.
Eklund’s comments came Tuesday in a conference call with more than 200 people, including water officials from across the Colorado Basin and members of the public. The call unveiled a series of agreements that will, if formally approved by Congress and others, constitute a first-ever basin-wide drought plan designed to avoid mandatory water cutbacks among those who rely on the Colorado River.
Seven states comprise the Colorado River Basin: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.
Among the agreements is a drought plan covering the Lower Basin states, which include Nevada, Arizona and California. A second drought plan covers the Upper Basin States, which include Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. Additional agreements that involve collaboration among all seven states, Mexico, Indian tribes with claims to the river, and the federal government are also included.
In the announcement Tuesday, the Lower Basin and Upper Basin states agreed to one another’s drought plans and to take steps to begin implementing them. The announcement has been months in the making, stalled at various times by political disputes.
“The Lower Basin has taken off any hold that it had in the negotiations, and we have done the same with them,” Eklund said. “We’ve progressed to the point where we’re holding hands now and moving forward together.”
The Upper Basin Drought Contingency Plan has two components: The first involves new storage in Powell and an aggressive 500,000-acre-foot water savings plan, in which water users in each of the four Upper Basin states would voluntarily agree to reduce water use. Their saved water would then be stored in a protected pool in Lake Powell. Any farmer or city that contributes to the drought pool would be paid.
How those water savings would be achieved and who would pay for them has yet to be determined and each Upper Basin state would have to agree to participate, said Karen Kwon, an attorney with the Colorado Attorney General’s Federal and Interstate Water Unit who has been helping write and negotiate the agreements.
The second component involves a new operating agreement that would allow water to be released from Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado, Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico and part of Colorado, and Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah and sent down to Powell in times when it is needed.
Officials hope the agreements can be approved by water users, the states and Congress and finalized next year, Kwon said.
“I think this is really hopeful,” said Melinda Kassen, senior counsel at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Trust who also sits on Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee, a group that monitors water issues within the state and between its major river basins.
“We’ve been talking about this kind of account in Lake Powell for a number of years, but the Lower Basin would never consider it. They didn’t want us to be able to store water in Powell that wasn’t subject to [use by the Lower Basin]. That position has changed now. That’s what makes this announcement so important,” Kassen said.
The agreements come after a devastating year in which Colorado and other states saw some of the lowest snowpacks and streamflows on record. Flows into Lake Powell were roughly one-third of average and Powell and Mead are now just 44 percent full on a combined basis.
Since 2007, the Colorado River Basin has been operating under a set of interim rules designed to protect Powell and Mead from dropping so low that either power production or expected water deliveries would be impacted.
But those rules were based on much higher projected river flows than have materialized since then.
“The drought we’re in is actually drier than we had anticipated under the 2007 guidelines,” Kwon said.
As water levels in Powell and Mead have dropped, alarm among water officials has been rising.
Colorado and other Upper Basin states are legally required to deliver 8.23 million acre-feet of water from Lake Powell in any given year. Because this year was so dry, even more was needed, and under the 2007 interim guidelines the Upper Basin states had to release 9 maf from their dwindling supplies in Powell.
At the same time, Lower Basin states have watched supplies in Lake Mead decline as well. Under the plan unveiled Tuesday, these states would have to take additional steps to use less water and leave more in Lake Mead. All told, they hope to store an additional 100,000 acre-feet of water in Mead, an amount they hope will keep the giant reservoir operational.
Kwon describes the drought agreements as a Band-Aid designed to keep the river system functioning until a new set of interim guidelines are written in 2026 that better reflect the lower snowpacks the region is now routinely seeing.
How successful Colorado will be in creating a water-saving program is unknown. The trick will be getting Front Range and West Slope water interests on the same page. The state’s Western Slope interests have been concerned for years that they would be the first forced to give up water in a situation such as the one the state faces now.
Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs, said he’s grateful the process is moving forward. But he said the West Slope would have to see the state formally adopt a policy that would, in effect, guarantee that any water conservation plan is voluntary, that users are paid, that it is temporary in nature, and that it draws water equally from the Front Range and the West Slope. Without such a policy, Mueller said it would be difficult to support Colorado’s drought contingency plan.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
Today, Western Resource Advocates welcomed the release of tentative agreements shared by the seven states in the Colorado River Basin, an effort to provide water security to the 40 million people who rely on the river.
According to the latest hydrologic reports, 2018 has been one of the driest years on record, adding to the stresses on the river, which supplies water to some of the fastest-growing communities in the United States. In August, the Bureau of Reclamation reported that water levels in Lake Mead are falling so fast that mandatory cutbacks of the water delivered to Arizona and Nevada could be required by 2020.
Western Resource Advocates is among the group of businesses, water experts, local governments, and conservation organizations working together to find the best ways to protect the health of the Colorado River while meeting the needs of cities, farms, and businesses.
Bart Miller, Healthy Rivers Program Director for Western Resource Advocates, issued the following statement about the progress:
“The proposed Drought Contingency Plans shared this week are a significant step in the right direction for the farmers, communities, and businesses who depend on the Colorado River for drinking water, recreation, and irrigation. While much work remains to be done, we applaud the progress that has been made so far, and we encourage all of the major parties to stay at the negotiating table and continue to be transparent as the documents move toward becoming final.
“After years of drought and over-use, the Colorado River is at a crisis point. We must take decisive, proactive steps now, or states across the West will lose water they rely on. We believe that collaborative solutions can be found to mitigate impacts to water users, protect our communities, encourage appropriate economic growth, and preserve the iconic rivers, habitat, and species of the American West.”
The documents, which were released Tuesday, lay out a framework for cuts in water deliveries to prop up the levels of the river’s two biggest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell.
The documents included proposed drought-contingency plans for the Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — as well as the Lower Basin states — Arizona, Nevada and California.
The details of how much water each state would leave in Lake Mead have been negotiated over the past couple of years, and the proposed numbers haven’t changed since the outlines of an agreement were circulated earlier this year.
Negotiations are still underway in Arizona to determine how cities, farming districts and tribes could share in the cutbacks to spread around the impacts of the deal.
Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River program director for the National Audubon Society, expressed optimism about the states reaching the agreements.
“This news puts us closer than we’ve ever been to a more secure water future for the Colorado River,” Pitt said in a statement. “Arizona is the last piece of the puzzle before the Drought Contingency Plan is a done deal.”
Pitt noted that once the Lower Basin states sign an agreement, it will trigger parallel efforts by Mexico under a deal signed last year for the country to also store more water in Lake Mead.
“More water in Lake Mead means reduced risk of severe water shortage declarations,” Pitt said. Plus, she said, having a deal in place would allow for more of a focus on efforts to direct some water toward environmental purposes, including habitat restoration efforts in the dry Colorado River Delta and the shrinking Salton Sea.
The agreements are tentative and must be approved by multiple states and agencies as well as the U.S. government. But they are seen as a milestone in the effort to preserve the river, which supports 40 million people and 6,300 square miles (16,300 square kilometers) of farmland in the U.S. and Mexico.
“I think it’s a critical step,” said Pat Mulroy, former manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves Las Vegas and other cities, and now a senior fellow at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas law school.
The agreements create a collection of drought contingency plans designed to manage and minimize the effects of declining flows in the Colorado and its tributaries. Some plans were made public Tuesday. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages major reservoirs across the West, is expected to release others Wednesday.
A nearly two-decade-long drought has drained the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, to alarmingly low levels. The Bureau of Reclamation says the chances of a shortfall in Lake Mead are 57 percent by 2020. If that happens, mandatory cutbacks would hit Arizona, Nevada and Mexico first.
The reservoir never has fallen low enough to trigger a shortage.
California agreed to soften the blow by voluntarily reducing its Colorado River use by about 6 percent if conditions are bad enough, said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a wholesaler serving 19 million people.
Kightlinger said California wanted to avoid having Congress or the U.S. Department of Interior step in and dictate a solution. “We wanted to control our own destiny and not leave things up to a political process,” he said.
Even with the plans in place, the impacts will be painful for some.
“We’ve been letting farms know they are undoubtedly going to have to change their irrigation practices,” said Paul Orme, an attorney who represents four Arizona irrigation districts in that state’s internal discussions on drought planning. “Irrigate less land with less water.”
Orme said farmers in the districts fear they will be affected disproportionately under the plan…
The two major components of the plans cover the Upper Basin, where most of the water originates as Rocky Mountain snowfall, and the Lower Basin, which consumes more of the water because it has more people and farms.
Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are in the Upper Basin. Arizona, California and Nevada are in the Lower Basin.
It will likely be next year before all seven states and the U.S. government approve the plans, said Karen Kwon, Colorado’s assistant attorney general. Mexico agreed last year to participate in drought planning…
Water managers have warned for months that a shortage could have catastrophic effects on agriculture and the economy of the Southwest. But the states were always expected to reach agreements on drought plans because of their history of cooperating on Colorado River issues.
“This is the way things should be done,” said Ted Kowalski, who heads the Colorado River Program for the Walton Family Foundation, which has funded river restoration projects in the U.S. and Mexico.
“It’s a much preferred method of solving water management decisions than litigation or politics,” he said…
The drought plans rolled out this week are a first step, but the states must find ways to put water back into the river, said Mulroy, the former southern Nevada utility chief.
Desalinizing seawater and recycling wastewater are possibilities, she said.
“As important as the drought contingency plan is, it’s a tourniquet, it’s a Band-Aid, it is not the be-all and end-all that would solve the structural deficit that exists in the river,” Mulroy said.
The most interesting bit now seems to be the halting progress toward a new set of rules that allows the states of the Upper Colorado River Basin – Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico – to create a conservation storage pool in Lake Powell. One of the sticking points in planning for water reductions up here (in the Upper Basin) is that if we conserve water and prop up Lake Powell in the process, under the current rules, we risk simply increasing the release to Lake Mead. We risk losing a chunk of the water we conserve.
The idea under DCP would be to create a separate accounting category in Powell for conserved water that’s “invisible” (the word people have been using) to the Powell->Mead water sharing rules. The details here are hairy, in terms of ensuring that conservation is really happening and accounting for it in a way that’s transparent and agreeable to the states of the Lower Basin.
But the fact that we seem to be getting something of this sort, or at least an agreement on the general outline of how it might work, is a big deal.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Officials on Tuesday released draft agreements that include a drought contingency plan for Upper Colorado River Basin states, including Colorado and another such plan for Lower Basin states.
They come as the Colorado River Basin is in a drought dating back nearly two decades, including one of the driest years on record in the 2018 water year, which ended Sept. 30.
For Upper Basin states, the agreements they are seeking to reach are intended to assure water levels don’t fall too low in Lake Powell. Low levels in the reservoir would threaten hydropower production and raise the threat of a curtailment of Upper Basin water use to avoid reducing flows to the Lower Basin below levels allowed under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
The agreements involving the Upper Basin focus on operating the Blue Mesa, Flaming Gorge and Navajo reservoirs in a way to help shore up water levels in Powell, and on addressing the need for a place to store any water conserved through demand-management efforts. Crucially, such water would be released from Lake Powell downstream only for interstate compact compliance, and couldn’t just be released to meet the terms of an existing agreement that coordinates operations between Powell and Lake Mead in the Lower Basin.
In a webinar by state water officials Tuesday, James Eklund, Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, said doing nothing would mean there would be no way to protect conserved water, and Upper Basin officials have been working hard to get Lower Basin agreements on the matter.
“Here we are. We have a suite of agreements they have indeed agreed to, and we are on this path to getting this win for the Upper Colorado River Basin and state of Colorado,” he said.
The drought contingency plan negotiations altogether include seven basin states and involve other entities including the Department of Interior. Officials hope to finalize the agreements early next year and also plan to pursue companion federal legislation that will be required.
The negotiations also have produced a draft agreement among Lower Basin states aimed at boosting water levels in Lake Mead, including through additional voluntary water conservation…
The work to finalize the agreements has led to some tensions within Colorado. The Western Slope’s Colorado River District has been concerned that by reaching an interstate agreement on storage, Colorado could be facilitating creation of a demand management program in the state that lacks the criteria the river district thinks it should contain.
The river district wants any such program to be voluntary, compensated and temporary, with the impacts not disproportionately burdening any part of the state. Some Front Range water interests have raised the prospect of it possibly including mandatory curtailment of uses.
Last week, the Colorado Water Conservation Board directed its staff to work on developing a draft policy guiding development of any demand management program in the state.
Becky Mitchell, director of the CWCB, told the roughly 250 participants in Tuesday’s webinar that all state efforts at this point are geared toward assessing the capability of a temporary, voluntary, compensated program.
“We plan to continue to work with stakeholders on how such a program could be operated,” she said.
That work involves an ongoing, extensive outreach effort, including at an Oct. 23 workshop in Grand Junction hosted by the Grand Valley Water Users Association, she said.
Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller hopes the Colorado Water Conservation Board will adopt a demand management program policy in November with the criteria the Western Slope has been seeking. If it doesn’t, the river district may have to oppose the interstate drought contingency planning documents and associated legislation, he said.
Speaking at a water forum in Grand Junction in September, Mueller voiced concerns that the state appeared to be headed toward finalizing interstate drought contingency documents within a matter of weeks, without having released them for public review. He’s been glad to see instead that the process is moving more slowly, with the opportunity to provide comment…
Mueller said the river district is reviewing the documents released Tuesday and will be submitting comments on them, but they contained no surprises based on an initial reading of them.
Meanwhile, Mueller said the river district understands a time may come when drought conditions become so horrendous the state might need to consider looking at mandatory, uncompensated curtailment of water uses in Colorado to avoid curtailment under the interstate compact.
“But it should only happen after that concept has been subject to very clear public discussion and very informed public discussion,” he said.
With reservoir levels falling along the Colorado River, Arizona’s top water officials say they are making progress in talks toward a set of agreements for cities, farmers and tribes to share in water cutbacks and join in a larger proposed deal to prevent Lake Mead from dropping even further.
Since July, state water managers have been leading a series of biweekly meetings to work out details of the proposed drought-contingency plan. After their latest three-hour session Thursday, the two officials leading the talks said they are optimistic about finalizing agreements within Arizona in November so that the Legislature can sign off in January.
The proposed three-state plan would involve California, Arizona and Nevada jointly taking less water out of Lake Mead to give the reservoir a boost.
Based on Arizona’s priority system of water rights, complying with the plan without an additional adjustment would cut off water for farmers who depend on deliveries from the Central Arizona Project.
The idea is to reach an agreement that “more equitably spreads around the pain and the benefits” of the drought-contingency plan in Arizona, said Tom Buschatzke, director of the state Department of Water Resources.
“People are getting their real issues out on the table,” Buschatzke told The Arizona Republic. “People are really looking for solutions. They really are. There are some who are still holding their cards close to their vests, but I think the vast majority of people are trying to find ways to make this happen.”
Buschatzke spoke alongside Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke, who said he’s also optimistic about finishing a deal during the next two months.
“Nobody wants to see anybody lose any water, but people are going to,” Cooke said. “Nobody wants to see that hardship come to anybody, but there is going to be hardship and we need to spread it around.”
Cooke said it will be critical to get buy-in and widespread support to prepare for Buschatzke to take an agreement before the Legislature for approval.
“We need to get everybody on board,” Cooke said, “so that when he needs to go to the Legislature and say, ‘Give me the authorization to enter into this multistate deal,’ that everybody — or as many people as possible — can stand up and say, ‘We support this.’”
Some of the hurdles lie in negotiating agreements between the players to conserve water in places and free up some for the lowest-priority water users — such as farmers in central Arizona — to prevent them from losing their water supplies completely. Those talks about where the water will come from, and about the compromises needed to achieve such a deal, have been underway in a series of smaller meetings, Cooke said, and working through the details takes time…
One potential approach for freeing up water to make an agreement work, Buschatzke said, would be paying a higher-priority entity like a tribe to leave some farmland fallow and send that water elsewhere. He said officials are talking about ideas of where they might get the funding needed to compensate parties that would conserve water…
Arizona officials have said the goal now isn’t to prevent a shortage, which is looking very likely in little more than a year from now, but rather to prevent even more severe shortages…
Managers of water districts from across the region met in Las Vegas earlier this month for talks on the plan. James Hanks, the board president of California’s Imperial Irrigation District, said there was a “full-court press” by federal officials to get an agreement finished…
Hanks said federal officials talked about releasing drafts of the main agreements around Oct. 10.
Federal officials have made it clear they hope to have a deal finished by the annual conference of the Colorado River Water Users Association in mid-December, and that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wants to be there to “sign the deal,” Buschatzke said. He said federal officials know he won’t be able to formally sign until the Arizona Legislature passes a resolution granting him that authority…
“Progress has been good and steady, and I think we’re close,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “I think in California we have conceptually resolved all our intrastate issues and now we’re in the process of drafting them up.”
Kightlinger plans to brief the Metropolitan board on the proposed deal on Oct. 8. The way the agreement will work in California, he said, is that districts will leave water in Lake Mead according to how much they have used historically…
In Arizona, Kevin Moran of the Environmental Defense Fund has been participating in talks since early 2016 promoting the drought-contingency plan.
“Our view is that it’s better to plan ahead and avoid crisis if you can, because in a crisis, the environment will often lose,” Moran said. “It’s in the interest really of the entire region.”
He said adopting the deal will be a critical step toward managing water sustainably. And if the three states approve their agreement, Mexico has pledged under a separate deal to contribute by temporarily leaving more water in Lake Mead.
“I think the momentum is building because the hydrology of the region is grim and people realize that,” Moran said.
From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):
Western Water Notebook: Commissioner Brenda Burman, in address at foundation’s water summit, also highlights shasta dam plan
The Colorado River Basin is more than likely headed to unprecedented shortage in 2020 that could force supply cuts to some states, but work is “furiously” underway to reduce the risk and avert a crisis, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman told an audience of California water industry people.
During a keynote address at the Water Education Foundation’s Sept. 20 Water Summit in Sacramento, Burman said there is opportunity for Colorado River Basin states to control their destiny, but acknowledged that in water, there are no guarantees that agreement can be reached.
“While you can’t control weather, you can’t control climate in many ways, what we do know is that we can look at the risk ahead and we can find ways to address that risk,” she said.
In a talk that touched on Reclamation’s work across the West, Burman also said California needs more water storage to take advantage of exceptional runoff years and pointed to the Bureau’s proposal to raise Shasta Dam as one solution.
The first woman commissioner in Reclamation’s 116-year history, Burman, 51, lauded the “great tradition” of cooperative efforts by stakeholders to maintain the Colorado River’s viability even as people have begun to contemplate the potential impacts of a coming crisis.
“Everybody has come together, and we are working furiously about how do we address that risk, how do we buy it down, how do we control our own destiny,” she said. “We are very close and very hopeful of coming to terms this year with a deal on the Colorado River … where everybody is taking a little bit of a hit, finding more flexibility, but knowing that the future may hold more difficult problems.”
Should dry conditions continue this winter, Reclamation projects a 57 percent chance of a shortage declaration in 2020, which would be the first time that has ever occurred. Under the first tier of a shortage declaration on Lake Mead, Colorado River water deliveries, primarily to Arizona, would be cut. The seven Colorado River Basin states — California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — have responded with pending drought contingency plans that are centered on the idea that all water users, not just those with junior water rights, have a stake in keeping the system whole.
“When you look at the risk that’s being faced on the Colorado River, I commend the senior water users who have stepped up,” Burman said. “Senior users on the Colorado River system have very much stepped up and said, ‘We recognize this risk and we are willing to come to the table to figure this out.’”
The overseer of the Central Valley Project (CVP) and the vast apparatus of the Colorado River Storage Project, Reclamation employs about 5,000 people in maintaining 475 dams and 337 reservoirs across 17 Western and Great Plains states.
Burman assumed her duties amid a whirlwind of water policy activity in California as a new federal administration began to establish its priorities for managing the CVP. The emphasis of that task, which includes the proposed raising of Shasta Dam, was crystallized in August when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called for a plan to maximize water supply deliveries from the CVP to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. Asked about the plan at the Water Summit, Burman said work on it is still underway.
Burman lamented the inability of the current water storage system in California to take advantage of the runoff that comes during exceptionally wet years, such as 2017.
“There is a huge reliability problem on this system,” she said. “There is not enough infrastructure and we don’t have enough places to put water, whether it’s above ground or underground. It is time for us to take a look at what is available and what is affordable for increasing the capacity of this system so that the water supply is more reliable in dry years.”
She called the proposed raising of Shasta Dam, which has been discussed for more than 20 years and is controversial in some corners, “by far the most cost-effective project” for creating a water supply.
“If you raise the dam by 18 feet … you can actually have an incredible effect,” she said. “You can produce over 600,000 acre-feet of new capacity and new space in that system. If we had filled that up in 2017, that would have helped so much this year. It would have helped with meeting our responsibilities to fish and meeting the responsibilities to our contractors.”
CVP contractors south of the Delta support the idea of raising the dam because the extra storage could help with their supply during tight times and provide the necessary water for embattled salmon populations.
Some environmental and fishery organizations and the nearby Winnemem Wintu Tribe oppose raising the dam.
In a March 2018 letter to some congressional leaders, Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird wrote that a dam raise “would violate California law due to the adverse impacts that project may have on the McCloud River and its fishery.”
In addition to her time as a deputy commissioner with Reclamation and a deputy assistant secretary at Interior, Burman’s 25-year career has been spent with the Salt River Project in Arizona, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, The Nature Conservancy and the office of Arizona Senator Jon Kyl.
A graduate of the University of Arizona College of Law, Burman was a judicial clerk for the Wyoming Supreme Court and Coconino County Superior Court in Arizona.
She began her career as a park ranger at Grand Canyon National Park. In her testimony last year to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, she talked about the lessons learned from that experience.
“In the canyon, we counted on scarce springs in the backcountry for our water supply, and on the rim we counted on a rickety old pipeline that often broke to bring water from Roaring Springs up to the rim and the tourist area,” she said. “It was a learning experience that taught me the value of water and the hard work it often takes to get it.”
The river’s Upper Basin – generally north of Lake Powell – has been largely insulated from the 19-year drought afflicting the giant watershed, thanks to the region’s relatively small water demand and heavy snows that bury Colorado’s 14,000ft peaks each winter. But this year, there was no salvation in the snowpack.
Several major Colorado River tributaries – the Dolores, San Juan and Gunnison rivers – saw record-low snowpack this winter. Others, including the Yampa River and the headwaters of the Colorado itself, did not break records but saw snowpack shrink to 70 percent or less of average.
As a result, many reservoirs on the west slope of the Rocky Mountains have shrunk to mud puddles. In August, the resort city of Aspen, Colorado, imposed mandatory watering restrictions on its residents and visitors for the first time in its history. And in another first, the state of Colorado curtailed water rights on the Yampa River – which flows through Steamboat Springs – forcing some water users to stop extracting water to protect higher-priority users and aquatic life in the river.
In the Colorado River’s more arid Lower Basin, the chronic drought has received plenty of attention due to the dramatic shrinkage of Lake Mead and the likelihood of water shortages for Arizona, Nevada and California in 2020. But drought in the Upper Basin has gone relatively unnoticed, and in many ways it will be a much tougher problem to solve.
“This is the first time we’ve had to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh my gosh, our lives have changed,’” says Doug Monger, a county commissioner in Routt County, Colorado, home to Steamboat Springs. “It’s scary as hell.”
Mead and Powell are the largest and second-largest reservoirs in the nation, respectively. They’re linked by the Grand Canyon, one of the planet’s most iconic geologic features. Yet while everyone has watched epic drought paint a giant bathtub ring around Lake Mead, Lake Powell has been shrinking, too.
The water elevation at Powell has sunk 94ft since 2000. A big reason is that Lake Powell has been used to keep Lake Mead from sinking to an elevation of 1,075ft, the point at which the federal government must declare a water shortage under a 2007 agreement. This would cause mandatory water delivery cuts to the Lower Basin states, triggering widespread water rationing.
A new report by a team of science and policy experts, known as the Colorado River Research Group, notes that continuing this practice will bring harm to Lake Powell. If the lake shrinks, it could compromise hydropower generation at Glen Canyon Dam and prevent Lake Powell from continuing to backfill Lake Mead.
It could also touch off an ugly dispute between the two basins. To reach agreement on the 1922 Colorado River Compact, Upper Basin states committed to send the Lower Basin states a certain amount of water. As measured at Lee’s Ferry, just below Lake Powell, those water deliveries must achieve a 10-year running average of 75 million acre-feet. If not, the Lower Basin states can declare a “compact call,” triggering negotiations that could subject the Upper Basin states to water rationing.
That prospect, long considered remote, may now be looming.
“The lower Lake Powell gets, the higher the probability that’s going to happen,” says Douglas Kenney, a member of the research group and director of the Western Water Policy Program at University of Colorado Law School. “A compact call would be devastating in the Upper Basin. It would be total chaos.”
That’s because there are no hard and fast rules to govern a compact call. There is no clear trigger for the process, unlike the elevation triggers at Lake Mead. And there is no clear process that follows declaration of a compact call, nor any rules about who should cut their water use.
If the Lower Basin declares a compact call, Kenney says, it would surely be contested by Upper Basin water users.
“Some of that could be Supreme Court-type litigation that could come into play,” he says. “If you get to that point, all you’re doing is saying there’s not going to be enough water for everybody, so let’s decide who’s going to get the short end of the stick. You never solve problems when you get to that situation.”
Powell has continued shrinking not just because of drought in the Upper Basin, but because the Lower Basin has benefited from surplus water passed through Glen Canyon Dam – beyond requirements of the 1922 agreement. Through interim rules adopted in 2007, surplus flows in the Upper Basin have been passed along to Lake Mead to keep the latter from falling into shortage. This water would have otherwise stayed in Lake Powell and avoided the decline in water elevation there.
This has amounted to an 11 million acre-feet bonus for Lake Mead since the surplus water began flowing, Kenney’s group found in the new report. And Lake Powell is likely to go on shrinking as long as these water releases continue.
In addition to the threat of a compact call, Colorado now has its own water shortages to worry about from drought and climate change. A new study, for instance, blames 53 percent of the decline in water flows in the Colorado River on warmer temperatures, not just less precipitation. This is likely to continue as temperatures warm, a worrisome trend since the Upper Basin delivers about 90 percent of all the flow in the Colorado River.
Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, presented six principles last week to guide an emerging federal and state program designed to reduce water use in order to avoid a compact call on the Colorado River.
Mueller spoke at a seminar produced by the River District in Grand Junction that attracted 265 people. The theme of the seminar was “Risky Business on the Colorado River.”
The first two principles Mueller described Friday at the meeting relate to a legal bucket-within-a-bucket that the upper-basin states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming plan to create through federal legislation in Lake Powell, which would allow the three states to control water that they deliver to the big federal reservoir through a demand management, or water-use reduction program.
The River District’s first principle is that such a storage program in Lake Powell should be “free of charge” and designed “for the benefit of the upper basin to avoid a compact violation.”
The district’s second principle says water stored in Lake Powell from a demand-management program should “not be subject to equalization or balancing releases from Lake Powell.”
That principle stems from a set of interim guidelines approved in 2007 by the upper-basin states and the lower-basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada that seek to use water from Lake Powell, when it is at certain levels, to keep Lake Mead operational.
Mueller and other upper-basin regional water managers think the guidelines, which expire in 2026, now allow the lower basin to take more water than they deserve under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
Mueller told his audience that the demand-management pool to be created in Lake Powell is “for preventing lower-basin entities from sucking too much water down that river.”
So, the second principle is meant to protect the upper basin from the lower basin.
The other principles are designed to either protect the Western Slope from the state, which is discussing potential mandatory cutbacks in water use in order to avoid a compact call, or from the Front Range, which may support such a measure, according to Mueller.
The River District’s board members are determined to protect agricultural interests on the Western Slope, which use about 1.4 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River system every year, mainly for irrigating alfalfa fields and pastures.
By comparison, Front Range cities use about 360,000 acre-feet of water a year from the Colorado River Basin through their transmountain diversion systems, which are junior to the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
And if those cities have that water cut off in the face of a call under the compact, Mueller said they would come buy out willing irrigators on the Western Slope and dry up their fields.
The River District’s third principle is that any use-reduction program in the upper-basin states must be “voluntary, temporary and compensated” and “must reflect proportionate contributions from each upper division state.”
Mueller said the River District supports a “guided market” approach to paying water users to use less water and let it flow instead to Lake Powell.
“What we’re opposed to is some form of mandatory uncompensated curtailment of water rights, whether it is pre- or post-compact,” he said.
The fourth principle is that there must be “no injury to other water rights.”
The fifth principle is that there must be “no disproportionate impacts to any single basin or region with Colorado.”
Mueller said Friday that the demand-management program must “make sure that the pain that comes with the reducing consumption of water is actually equitably distributed and applied to all users, everybody with a straw in the river.”
Mueller explained that the post-1922 water rights in the Colorado River basin are roughly split equally between the transbasin diverters on the Front Range and users on the Western Slope.
“These junior water rights that are diverting significant amounts of water to the Front Range, along with our junior water rights on the West Slope, are the ones that need to be willing to share in this demand-management program, in the intentional reduced use,” Mueller said.
The sixth principle is that a demand-management program must be consistent with what’s known as “the conceptual framework” in Colorado’s 2015 water plan relating to future potential transmountain diversions.
“We’re not going to curtail our uses on the West Slope and send demand-management water down to Lake Powell, only to have another transmountain diversion come in and suck water to the East Slope,” Mueller said. “That’s what the state agreed to when it agreed to the state water plan, and we’re saying that needs to be upheld.”
Mueller’s last slide said “the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state engineer should agree to abide by these principles and not go beyond them without unanimous agreement among those entities charged with protecting the state.”
He plans to deliver that message to the CWCB when it meets Wednesday in Steamboat Springs.
On Tuesday, the River District also released a series of letters and a draft resolution on the issue, including a letter from the River District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District to the CWCB board, a draft resolution from the River District and Southwestern they want the CWCB to approve, a letter from the Colorado Basin Roundtable to the CWCB, and a letter from the Front Range Water Council to the CWCB.
The letter from the Front Range Water Council, an ad hoc collection of the largest water providers on the Front Range, was dated Sept. 13. It includes a reference to the possibility of a non-voluntary water curtailment program in the upper Colorado River basin states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
“If the quantity of conserved water made available through a voluntary compensated demand management program is not sufficient to ensure compliance with the Colorado River Compact,the state of Colorado and the Upper Colorado River Commission may need to adopt alternative measures to generate water for storage in an Upper Division storage account,” the letter states. “We will work with the state of Colorado to develop an alternative mechanism for generating conserved water for the Upper Division storage account.”
In its letter to the CWCB, the Colorado River District and the Southwestern River District, stressed the need for consensus, and their inclusion, on any sort of mandatory curtailment program.
“We are concerned about recent discussions that a demand management program might morph into a mandatory ‘anticipatory curtailment’ program or something else that has not been publicly vetted,” said the letter. “That is the reason we request that the CWCB adopt of (sic) formal resolution or policy-statement regarding a demand management program, and that the CWCB commit that such a program be consistent in particular with Principle 4 of the Conceptual Framework set forth in the Colorado Water Plan.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily and other Swift Communications outlets on the coverage of rivers and water.